Laos is a stunningly beautiful little country which is largely rural and mountainous. I knew nothing of its war-ravaged history before coming here, however, after travelling off the typical tourist trail I am pleased to say I’ll be leaving this country a little more educated.
During my month in Laos I unexpectedly visited two places where I learned about its tragic past and present. The first was the Vieng Xai caves near the Vietnam border and the second was Phonsavan in the Xieng Khouang province, the most extensively bombed area and the gateway to the Plain of Jars. If you’re in Laos for at least 3 weeks I highly recommend skipping tubing in Vang Vieng (each to their own) and making the effort to visit these two places.
A Little Bit of History:
Laos has a tragic past and is one of the most heavily bombed countries per capita in the world.
Between 1964 – 1973, during the Vietnam war, the US dropped more than 270 million cluster bombs of which 30% failed to detonate. The rate at which bombs were dropped equates to a drop every 8 minutes for 24 hours for 9 years!
Now, nearly 50 years later this country still pays the deadly price and its people live in fear of unearthing the millions of bombs still lurking and still capable of detonating. Since the war ended 20,000 victims have either been killed or severely injured.
A cluster bomb houses hundreds of submunitions (about the size of a tennis ball), when the bomb is dropped these submunitions are released mid-air. As each submunition falls its fuse is meant to activate so it explodes either above or on the ground. Unfortunately, a large number fail to work and instead land on the ground unexploded which is the case in Laos.
The devastating events that took place was a covert CIA operation which violated the international agreement signed in Geneva in 1962 that would respect Laos’ neutrality.
The covert operation had two main aims: one was to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail used by the north Vietnamese as its supply line to the south, and the second was to support the Royal Lao Government against the communist Pathet Lao in the north.
There was a third reason and that was because sometimes the American aircraft was unable to launch their bombs at a primary target in Vietnam due to weather conditions. So, unable to land safely with the bombs still onboard they instead dumped them on Laos before heading back to their Thai base in Udon Thani.
This Secret War was kept hidden from Congress and the American people who were focussed on the war with Laos’ neighbour, Vietnam. It wasn’t until 2000 when President Clinton declassified the military records of the Vietnam war that the true extent of this tragedy was made public knowledge.
In September 2016 Barack Obama visited Laos, the only US president to do so since these devastating events took place nearly 50 years ago (Obama was a small boy when this happened)! Although he did not directly apologise for these events he did offer an open and honest speech and pledged to increase US funding to $90 million dollars over the next 3 years to support the clearance of the unexploded bombs (at the time the US was spending around $13 million dollars A DAY bombing Laos).
Almost 50 years on and the scars of those devastating 9 years are still visible. The millions of bombs yet to be cleared continue to impact the daily lives of the Lao people, they live in fear of when the next unsuspecting victim will be severely injured or killed. Victims are more likely to be kids who stumble across bombies when playing and think they’re toys.
As Laos is mainly rural the nearest hospital can sometimes be over 4-8 hours away via roads that are bumpy, narrow and winding. The average cost of treatment is around $200 which the victim’s family will need to pay, that’s approximately the average annual income for a rural family. Paying for treatment will sometimes mean selling their rice paddies or farm animals which will devastate them financially.
The development and growth of Laos is severely hindered including the opportunity to build schools, clinics and improve infrastructure. The land cannot be properly developed for farming because of the fear of unexploded bombs still lurking. The people still need to eat and provide for their family, so a majority do take a huge risk and work the fields. Many incidents are caused by impact so when a farmer is digging he/she is at risk of hitting a bomb causing it to explode.
Every day is plagued in fear wondering whether a bomb will claim someone’s life or blow someone’s limbs off. Some families face the dilemma of either not farming and not eating, or taking the risk and hoping they’ll be lucky.
With widespread poverty there are some people including children who risk their lives to get the scrap metal and explosives from inside the bomb which they sell for extra money.
Clearing the Bombs:
Though there is funding and efforts being made to help clear the bombs, it is disturbing to know that only 1% of them have been cleared and it will probably take decades before they will all be cleared.
One of the organisations that helps to locate and destroy unexploded bombs is the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). With their resources they have cleared over 200,000 bombs since 1994, but there are still millions of bombs littered over the country. In addition to clearing bombs MAG also provides risk education to the local people to raise awareness of the bombs and their associated risks.
There are a fair number of local woman who are involved with MAG and, whilst they know the risks of clearing the bombs, they are extremely proud of the work they do for their people and country. Most of them will have known someone who has been injured or killed.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions is an international treaty which prohibits the production, use, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions. This agreement has been signed by 111 countries and took effect in August 2010. America has yet to sign this treaty!
Supporting the Lao People:
The Quality of Life Association (QLA) was set up in 2011 by Lao nationals and they support victims of unexploded bombs and people with disabilities. Many of the people involved were survivors and they now help victims get access to medical and rehabilitation treatment. In addition, the organisation also advocates disability rights and the inclusion of victims in their communities.
The QLA centre in Phonsavan provides information about their work and profiles of the victims they have supported. Visiting the QLA centre was moving and saddening. There are drawings by Lao children which sadly are not sunshine and rainbows, but depicting what can happen if a bombie is found. One child also drew what he hoped for the future and drew a picture of a village with no UXO (unexploded ordnance), the child says “if there are no UXO we will have fields, animals, houses and a forest”. It shouldn’t be a lot to ask for!
I visited the Vieng Xai caves which is about 30kms from the town of Sam Neua near the Vietnam border. This area of Laos isn’t on the typical tourist trail and does take effort to get here. I travelled here by bus from Nong Khiaw and was an 11 hour gut-wrenching experience in a mini-van filled to the rafters for most of the journey. I was crammed in the back with 3 other travellers and at times I feared that my spinal discs may end up being destroyed. It was a small price to pay to gain an excellent insight into Laos’ history.
The Vieng Xai cave was the headquarters for the Pathet Lao and home for over 20,000 people between 1964 – 1973. Yes, that’s right, for 9 years they lived here! The caves housed kitchens, schools, living quarters, meeting rooms and emergency bunkers. There was even a theatre cave for performances, weddings, watching films and large party gatherings.
People were unable to go out of the cave during the day in fear of being detected and attacked by air raids. This meant that activities such as cooking had to be done strategically, typically it would be foggy in the morning so cooking (which had to be done outside because of the smoke) was done early in the morning before the fog cleared. Even a small detail such as colourful livestock had to be considered because it could be detected overhead by the US. Although the people were living in the caves they were still fearful of a bomb or chemical attacks, inside the caves were airtight shelters to escape to which had air pumps inside donated by the Russians.
The tour of the Vieng Xai caves was excellent with an English-speaking guide and an audio guide. It was 75000 kip including a bicycle.
Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars:
After visiting Vieng Xai I went to Phonsavan in the Xieng Khouang province which was the most extensively bombed area. Many guesthouses in the town display empty bomb shells outside which serves as a chilling reminder of the tragedy this country endured. The UXO Visitor Centre (QLA) and the MAG centre are located on the main strip and provide excellent information as well as short videos about the country’s history, the ongoing effects and challenges and the work being done to clear the bombs and rebuild people’s lives.
Phonsavan is the gateway to The Plain of Jars where 3 of the 90+ sites can be visited. These mysterious stone jars were discovered in 1930 and date back around 2,500 years ago and even today the reason for their existence isn’t fully known. The widely accepted reason is the jars housed dead bodies until they decomposed and were ready for burial, other more colourful reasons claim the jars were used to brew rice wine and beer.
Site 1 contains the most jars and at this site alone over 127 unexploded bombs have been unearthed. Bomb craters also litter the area providing a visual of the damage that took place here. When walking around all the sites where clearance work has taken place there are markers to indicate where it is safe to walk.
Site 3 is about a 30 minute scooter drive away and set in the most beautiful green scenery, on this day the clouds were huge and fluffy. My friend and I arrived just as a small group was leaving so we had the site to ourselves. At this point I knew about the risks that farmers take when working the field, so although it was wonderful to be surrounded by amazing scenery I couldn’t help but feel nervous and scared for these farmers who risk their lives to provide for their families.
If you find yourself in Phonsavan there is the opportunity to buy a small variety of handmade gifts or simply donate to help support the painstaking work that MAG do. Alternatively, you can donate via their website – http://www.maginternational.org/get-involved/donate/
UXO Survivor Centre (QLA)
I cannot find a website for them but you can donate at their centre in Phonsavan, they also sell a nice variety of handicrafts. You can keep up to date with their work via their Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/QLACenter/
(Note: I’m not involved with either of these organisations, I just want to share my experience of visiting both their centres and seeing their wonderful work and achievements)
Links for Further Reading: